Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How much will the change of government change Australia?

I returned to Australia last Saturday, just in time to vote, after having spent a month travelling around Britain and Ireland. That means I had the good fortune to miss the election campaign.

However, missing election campaigns is not always an unmixed blessing. The last time I missed an election campaign, in 1983, when the Hawke government was elected, the country seemed to change in my absence in ways that I found difficult to understand. Prior to leaving Australia I think there was a fairly common perception, which I shared, that Bob Hawke was a divisive figure in Australian politics. After I returned just a few weeks later, it took some time for me to adjust to the fact that Hawke had come to be widely viewed as a national leader, capable of bringing the nation together to deal with difficult issues. The mood of the country seemed to have changed while I wasn’t looking.

I don’t think I missed much by being absent during the most recent election campaign - there doesn’t seem to have been any marked change in public mood. It was predictable that voters who were having doubts in 2010 about the leadership offered by the old Kevin Rudd, would realize during the campaign that the new Kevin was still the same person. It was also predictable that people who were having difficulty bringing themselves to vote for Tony Abbott prior to the campaign would not suddenly see him as offering inspiring leadership. The issue was whether Tony would be able to demonstrate during the campaign that he had learned how to keep his foot out of his mouth. 

How much will the change of government change Australia? There are some who argue that when the government changes, the country always changes. Paul Keating famously put that view to voters in 1996, as his period as prime minister was drawing to a close.  I suppose some of the people who decided to vote for John Howard would have disagreed with Keating’s warning, but others would have actually wanted the country to change.

In my view, the Howard government did not actually change the country to a huge extent relative to the course that had been set by the Hawke and Keating governments. The size of the federal government (measured in terms of cash payments as a percentage of GDP) contracted from 25.6% in 1995-96 to 23.1% in 1999-00, and then rose again, peaking at 25.1% in 2000-01. The trend toward greater centralisation of power in Canberra continued unabated. There was a change of style and some change of emphasis – possibly including greater enthusiasm for privatisation of government business enterprises - but the direction of policies did not change to any great extent until the final term of the Howard government.

In its final term the Howard Government introduced ‘work choices’ in an attempt to further free up the labour market. The net result, however, was one step forward and two steps backward. The reform encountered so much political opposition that it helped Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard to gain power and introduce tighter labour market regulations than had existed prior to the Howard reforms.

In my view, the Rudd-Gillard-Swan governments changed the country to a much greater extent than could reasonably have been anticipated in 2007, when Rudd came to power. As well as the change of direction in industrial relations, the emphasis of policies turned towards redistribution of wealth as opposed to wealth creation with the introduction of an additional tax on mining profits. The change of style of government in the Rudd era – a prime minister with delusions of infallibility announcing policy on the run – made government seem chaotic. The Rudd-Gillard-Swan governments also brought about a substantial expansion in size of government – cash payments rose from 23.1% of GDP in 2007-08 to 26.1% in 2009-10. On the positive side of the ledger, the changes to health policy are possibly having positive outcomes (but I haven’t seen the evidence) and changes to education policy might also be positive. However, these policy changes have occurred at the expense of further centralisation of power in Canberra.

There seems to be a widespread expectation that the Abbott government will cut back the size of government, but I’m not sure that view  is warranted. The government will probably reduce the number of federal public servants, but when election  promises of increased spending are taken into account it seems unlikely that there will be a substantial reduction in government spending.

It is possible that the new government could take action to reform federal-state relations, by retreating from some policy areas that are more appropriately dealt with by the states. However, I will not be holding my breath waiting for that to happen. As noted a few years ago in my review of Tony Abbott’s book, ‘Battlelines’, he seems to be in favour of greater centralization of power in Canberra.

Perhaps the government will move on tax reform in its second term of office. But the most likely outcome will be a higher rate of GST to raise more revenue. If we continue to drift toward a European style welfare state, we will need a European style tax system to fund it!

I am not sure that we can even expect the new government to maintain policies favourable to free trade. Policies proposed with respect to ‘dumping’ suggest a lack of understanding of normal business practices and the role of international competition in the economy.

The main change the Abbott government seems likely to bring about is a return to more orderly government processes. In that respect, the contribution of the new government could be quite similar to that of the Fraser government in the 1970s, which brought to an end the chaos of the Whitlam years. In fact, the more I think about it the more I think that, with the exception of policies toward asylum seekers, the Abbott government could end up looking quite similar to the Fraser government. There will be plenty of talk about tough decisions, but I don’t think there is likely to be much action.

I had intended to mention that I was prompted to begin thinking about this question by a post last week on Jim Belshaw's blog. Jim's post was entitled: 'What can we expect of a new Coalition Government?'

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Can the internet help young men beat 'the blues'?

The ‘black dog index’, an initiative of the Black Dog Institute and Newspoll, suggests that coping with ‘the blues’ is not a huge problem for most Australians. When asked to rate how much they were troubled by anxiety and feeling miserable or depressed, the average ratings for all respondents in the most recent poll conducted in April 2013 were 2.7 and 2.9 respectively on a scale of 0 to 10 with zero being ‘not at all’ and 10 being ‘completely’. The average rating for being ‘troubled by feeling that life is hardly worth living’ was even lower, 1.2.

The averages are much the same for men and women and all age groups. They are somewhat higher for people who are not married and for those who are not working, but the average numbers are still low.

Blog PostNevertheless, there is evidence that a substantial proportion of the population suffer from anxiety and depression. I want to focus here on the evidence relating to young men, presented in ‘Game On: Exploring the Impact of Technologies on Young Men’s Mental Health and Wellbeing’, by Jane Burns et.al. which presents the findings from the first ‘Young and Well’ national survey.   ‘Young and Well’ is a Cooperative Research Centre with a focus on young people. It involves 70 partner organisations across the non-profit, corporate, academic, and government sectors.

Of the 700 young men included in the survey, more than three-quarters (78%) described their mental health as good to very good, but almost half (48%) nevertheless expressed concerns about coping with stress. Of those aged 22 to 25, 18.7% felt that ‘life is hardly worth living’, 13.5% thought that they would be ‘better off dead’, 12.4% claimed to have thought about taking their own life, 7.8% claimed to have made plans to take their own lives and 2.8% claimed to have attempted to have taken their own lives.

The survey suggests that young men with relatively high levels of psychological distress spend more time on the internet than others and access the internet more frequently late at night. The authors refrain from speculating about whether this might be a cause or effect, but they report that those with relatively high levels of psychological distress are more likely to use the internet to talk about problems and find information for mental health and alcohol or other substance abuse problems.

The authors of the report see internet technology as providing an opportunity to address the reluctance of young men to seek help when they are experiencing psychological distress. They suggest that many young men could benefit from online mental health services incorporating digital content, games and music. The report refers favourably to ReachOut.com, an online mental health resource for young people.

It is refreshing to read a report about anxiety and depression  that recognizes it as a problem that was also experienced by earlier generations rather than as a consequence of unique pressures that people face in the modern world.  It is great that researchers are exploring the potential for modern technologies to help people to overcome problems they are having in managing their lives.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Is the wellbeing of New Zealanders startlingly low?

A headline that appeared in the media a few weeks ago suggested that the wellbeing of New Zealanders is startlingly low by comparison with many other countries. The report was based on the inaugural ‘Sovereign Wellbeing index’ developed by the Human Potential Centre (HPC) of Auckland University of Technology (AUT). It suggested that when compared with surveys of 22 European countries using the same set of measurements, New Zealand ranked near the bottom. New Zealand ranked ahead of only Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ukraine and far behind Norway, Switzerland and Denmark, the top ranked countries.

The project leader, Grant Schofield, professor of public health at AUT, was reported as saying:
‘I hadn’t expected New Zealand to be best, but I hadn’t expected we’d do as badly as we did. I think it comes down to our comparative lack of social connectedness and the fact that the gap is growing between the haves and have-nots. We’re not even the fair society we once thought we were’.

I am also surprised by these findings. In fact, they seem to me to be anomalous. Previous studies have shown that subjective well-being measures tend to provide a more favourable view of the well-being of New Zealanders than is provided by comparison of average incomes levels.

The study uses the methodology of the European Social Survey (ESS) which views wellbeing in terms of how people feel (pleasure, sadness, enjoyment and satisfaction), and how they function (sense of autonomy, competence, interest and meaning or purpose in life). I support such measurement of wellbeing as long as it isn’t used to imply that improving wellbeing ought to be an over-riding objective of public policy. My view, as argued on this blog and in Free to Flourish, is that pursuit of happiness is primarily a matter for individuals (and their families and friends) rather than a public policy issue.

There are some aspects of the ESS approach to measurement of wellbeing that seem to me to be less than ideal. For example, it seems to me that in considering social support that is available to individuals it is important to know whether there are people whom they can count on to help them in times of need. Instead of asking about that, the ESS asks whether people in the local area help each other or feel close to each other. In modern societies, the people whom individuals rely on for social support – including family and friends – do not necessarily live in the local area.

However, I don’t think shortcomings of the ESS methodology can explain why the HPC/Sovereign index shows the wellbeing of NZers to be startlingly low. The responses of New Zealanders in this survey imply much lower wellbeing than in other surveys that have asked similar questions. For example, the following chart shows that the HPC data for New Zealand is an outlier when compared with the general relationship between responses to the ‘Satisfying life’ question of the ESS and the Gallup World Poll question that asks respondents to rate their ‘life today’ against the best possible life.

Another example is provided by comparing responses to the question of whether respondents consider themselves to be treated with respect in the ESS and the Gallup World Poll. Similarly, in that context the HPC data is an outlier in that context.

I don’t know why the Sovereign/HPC survey is showing the wellbeing of New Zealanders to be lower than other surveys of subjective wellbeing. Perhaps their survey is more accurate than previous surveys. However, until we know why the results of different surveys differ so much, we should, perhaps, not give much credence to claims that the wellbeing of New Zealanders is startlingly low.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Should people seek contentment or accomplishment?

This is a tricky question, for reasons that will become apparent as you read on.

I have been thinking that one of the problems in using life satisfaction as a measure of human flourishing is that satisfaction implies contentment, and contentment may kill motivation to do things that are worthwhile. That has made me wonder whether or not it is possible for people to become too satisfied with their lives.

When I considered this issue in writing Free to Flourish, I concluded that despite such problems, life satisfaction might still be an adequate measure of human flourishing. I reached that conclusion on the basis of a comparison of different measures of subjective well-being by the British Office of National Statistics (ONS). The results showed a fairly high level of correlation (0.66) between responses when people were asked ‘How satisfied are you with your life nowadays?’ and ‘Overall, to what extent do you think the things you do in your life are worthwhile?’.

However, that doesn’t really answer the question of whether it is better for people to seek contentment or accomplishment. It may be possible that people obtain greater satisfaction from life when they seek worthwhile accomplishment than when they seek contentment. It may also be possible that contentment helps people to devote their lives to doing things that they consider to be worthwhile. Such ideas are neither new, nor necessarily inconsistent.

People may not actually need to choose between contentment and accomplishment. Perhaps we only think a choice has to be made because we tend to equate contentment with sloth and accomplishment with frenzied effort. It is not obvious that a choice has to be made if contentment means equanimity and accomplishment means achievement of a worthwhile goal.

My intuitions suggest to me that the important requirement for both contentment and accomplishment is for people to make conscious choices about their goals in life, rather than just drifting without purpose. As children, we are strongly influenced by parents, peers teachers etc. but as we grow to adulthood, we cannot fully flourish unless we make good use of our emotional and intellectual resources to manage our own lives.

So, where is the evidence that goal setting works?  When I went looking for such evidence, the first thing I found was a post by Ray Williams entitled ‘Why goal setting doesn’t work’ on the ‘Psychology Today’ blog. Williams presents several different arguments to cast doubt on goal-setting, but his most powerful point seems to be the following:
‘The inherent problem with goal setting is related to how the brain works. Recent neuroscience research shows the brain works in a protective way, resistant to change. Therefore, any goals that require substantial behavioral change or thinking-pattern change will automatically be resisted. The brain is wired to seek rewards and avoid pain or discomfort, including fear. When fear of failure creeps into the mind of the goal setter it commences a de-motivator with a desire to return to known, comfortable behavior and thought patterns’.

That left me somewhat confused, so I took advantage of the fact that Jim Belshaw was conducting a discussion about goal setting on his blog, to ask participants what they thought about Ray Williams’ contribution. One of the participants, Evan Hadkins, who has a particular interest in personal development issues, made the following comments (slightly edited):
‘The goal setting literature does emphasise being realistic (the usual acronym being SMART). This of course is a bit of a cop out - if the goal isn't achieved then it wasn't realistic for one reason or another.
His reductionist pleasure-pain/fear psychology is wrong. (He is not alone in this error.)
I think he is a bit unfair to the goal setters. Lots of them talk about goals serving your wider values and choosing carefully what goals you aim for.
As to being in the now: Our longings, regrets, memories, fantasies, visions, plans and everything else all occur now. He doesn't understand this. He is not alone in this misunderstanding.

Overall I think it is pretty sloppy and confused. Lots of the goal setting literature emphasises worthwhile aims and being careful what you wish for. And his advice about intentions has all the problems of change that he levelled against goal setting. But I do agree with what I think is his basic point: goals should be realistic and serve worthwhile ends’.

I agree with Evan’s comments. Evan’s point about reductionist pleasure-pain/fear psychology brought to mind the ‘no failure just feedback’ idea that I picked up from NLP practitioners a few decades ago. The point is that our responses to evidence of failure to attain goals depend on our attitudes. We are unlikely to be devastated if we value the feedback we obtain as providing opportunities to consider how we can improve our future performance.

Evan’s point about choosing carefully what goals you aim for brought to mind the NLP concept of a ‘well-formed outcome’, with its emphasis on specifying the goal in a way you find compelling and running quality control checks to make sure that the desired goal is right for you in all circumstances of your life.

My answer to the question I raised initially is that people should be seeking contentment and accomplishment, making conscious choices about the kind of life they want to lead, by pursuing goals they consider worthwhile and feel passionate about. In my view it is not possible for individuals to be fully flourishing if they just drift aimlessly – unless, of course, drifting aimlessly is a goal they choose to pursue with a great deal of passion.